As global leaders gather this week at the World Economic Forum in Jordan (which concludes tomorrow), what must drive their discussions on the region is the issue of investing in youth. The Arab world is trapped in a vicious cycle, a lack of economic opportunities for an ever growing number of youth has a direct impact on political instability.
Rigid state structures are moving too slowly to harness their potential, being unable to generate constructive employment opportunities for these new entrants into the labour force. At the turn of century, the first Arab Human Development Report warned of “the poverty of opportunities”; today this challenge is all the more acute as demography and technology have raised the stakes and created a need for immediate action.
It is critical that youth be considered as a demographic gift to transform the region. For this to take effect, a government must work alongside the private sector and philanthropic initiatives, investing together to institute comprehensive changes. Channelling human potential is the political question of our time and central to building developed and peaceful societies in a region overrun by conflict.
Across the Arab world, unemployment stands at 25 per cent on an average as tales of economic development and budget surpluses in wealthier parts of the region distort the reality of a generation of under-occupied and disenfranchised youth. The Human Capital Report released last week illustrated a continued mismatch between economic growth and stunted human resource development. The report dramatically highlighted the need for Arab states to step up and generate and nurture young talent. Without the correct investment in youth today, future regional development could be severely hindered.
The overwhelming priority must be learning, not simply education. The future success of the Arab world depends on creating an environment conducive to learning and on building the skills to develop a generation of fine minds with the skills to build a better future. As modern economies become increasingly knowledge-based, digitally-driven and globalised, the next generation must be equipped with a capacity for life-long learning. The reality is as leaders convene to discuss the future this week at the Dead Sea, they do not know what future jobs will look like. Within this context, youth with malleable skills and intellectual curiosity need to be nurtured. The first Arab Human Development Report cautioned that Arabs will have “a marginal position in the next phase of human history”, with the reality of waning natural resources, this warning is all the more stark in 2015. The hitherto neglect of investment in learning is a clear example of the need for the Arab world to act in this regard. The total number of books translated into Arabic during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Abdullah Al Mamoun to this day is less than those translated in Spain in one year. This sobering statistic should not be a source of shame, but rather an inspiration to focus resources on shrinking the knowledge gap between the Arab and developing world.
Successive reports are right to focus on education and employment outcome gaps, demographic trends and untapped talent pools in the Arab world. This draws attention to the fact that burgeoning youth in the region have not been equipped with the skills and talent to seek employment in rapidly modernising economies. To meet this challenge, regional governments cannot work alone. In a part of the world where the state, either through wealth sourced from aid or hydrocarbons, has acted as a distributor of resources, a new paradigm is needed. State capitalism has worked up to a point. However, the government cannot be expected to sustain prosperity indefinitely. For a real harnessing of youth capabilities to take place, the private sector and related philanthropic endeavours in each country must partner with the state to provide relevant training, knowledge transfer and talent generation. In the long term, this will have a marked impact on improving the employability prospects of youth.
Daily news reports bring home the chilling message that without crucial investment, the region’s youth are at risk of radicalisation. To build a better future for the Arab world, it must be understood that investment in youth is not only critical to the economic productivity of society, but also to safeguard its political, social and civic institutions. Focusing on learning should not be considered alien to the Arab world. It should be more about the reclamation of strong tradition. A youthful population is not a challenge, but rather with political will and targeted investment, it is a ticket to rapidly improving the lot of the region’s citizens.
Surrounded by a continent in the throes of revolution, Victor Hugo argued that “he who opens a school, closes a prison”. This dynamic has significant value for the Arab world today.
Sultan A. Al Saud is an active board member of two charitable endeavours that seek to support needy Saudis — the Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz Foundation for Humanitarian Development and the Hussa Bint Ahmad Al Sudairi Foundation. He is attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa.